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I am often asked how I learned to sew and what advice I would give beginners. Since I started sewing only two years ago, it’s all very fresh in my mind!

So here, in no particular order, is my entirely subjective, highly biased top ten tips list:

1. Start off with a good machine. I can’t imagine anything more discouraging than learning to sew on a temperamental sewing machine. You may know by now that I am extremely biased toward vintage machines, straight stitchers in particular. But most people these days start with zigzaggers and that’s OK too.

Here in the USA, good used machines can be had for less than $50 on Craigslist, eBay, and at many local thrift stores. Maybe your neighbor or a family member has one in storage. Make sure you clearly ask the seller/donor whether the machine has any mechanical problems. The last thing you need is to bring home your first sewing machine and discover the bobbin winding mechanism doesn’t work or the cams are cracked (if it has embroidery cams). A manual is always helpful and if missing, can usually be downloaded online for a few dollars.

There’s nothing wrong with spending more for a high quality machine, but when you’re starting out you don’t really know which features you’ll value most. I recommend thinking of your first machine as a starter and spending the big bucks later, if at all. Doesn’t that makes sense?

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2. Avoid (avoidable) complexity. The simpler the machine the less is likely to be/go wrong with it, which is why I like old straight stitch machines. If you’re interested in making clothes, you don’t need fancy embroidery stitches, which is the selling point for new machines. Nothing has changed mechanically in decades and little (if anything) has improved. I know that some people prefer a new machine and that’s fine. Just keep it simple and don’t let yourself be wowed by fancy computerized geegaws you’re unlikely ever to use.

3. Buy yourself a good beginner’s book. In my experience, there aren’t that many of these. There are countless excellent encyclopedic sewing guides, like the Readers Digest guide, and these are great to have on hand for reference, but I would not use them to get started — too much info.

My favorite beginner’s sewing book is Diana Rupp’s Sew Everything Workshop. Diana walks you through step-by-step in the gentlest, most caring way, and the book itself is beautiful to look at AND spiral bound, which is a tremendous help. It also includes many simple patterns for some basic garments and home dec items that are cute and trendy (and on real pattern paper too). They’re mainly for women, of course, but not exclusively. I made my first garment — a pair of boxer shorts — from a pattern in Diana’s book and I still wear the results!

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4. Start small. If you follow Diana’s book you won’t have to think about this. It’s more fun to sew something simple and do it well than to tackle something too advanced and be disappointed with the results. You’ll learn either way, for sure, but some of us get very discouraged when our results don’t match our expectations. Whether we’re making a pencil case or an evening gown, choice of fabric and other details is going to make a huge difference in our enthusiasm and happiness with the result. It’s not what you sew but how you sew it.

5. Practice. Like any other skill, sewing takes some practice. After a while things that seemed difficult at first, like matching the edges of two separate pieces of fabric at 5/8", become second nature. When I got my first sewing machine, I just loved to sew scraps of fabric together — any fabric. It all seemed very miraculous to me at the time and still does!

6. Lower the stakes. A lot of perfectionists are drawn to sewing. I’ve sewn many dozens of garments, and some turn out better than others. I try not to make sewing a reflection of my self-worth. Sewing should be fun, even when it’s challenging. With skill you can make some fantastic things but ultimately, most of us don’t have to sew to have clothes to wear. Many of us already had bulging closets before we even picked up a needle. Sew like a child and enjoy it. You’re only going to get better with practice.

7. Make up your own rules. I am a big believer in trusting one’s intelligence. Some things you read in a sewing book or in pattern directions — how to insert a zipper, say — may sound unnecessarily complex. Don’t be afraid to try it your own way. The people who wrote those directions are just people. Maybe there’s a simpler method and YOU are the person who will have discovered it. If it doesn’t work, you’ll have learned something. You have nothing to lose provided you’re not experimenting on your nearly-finished garment made of $75/yd. silk shantung!

8. Find a sewing community. I could not have learned as fast as I have without the support and encouragement of Burdastyle and Pattern Review members. Sewing friends are tremendously valuable, not only at the beginning but all along your sewing journey. Having a community makes sewing so much more fun. A dirty little secret is that I rarely looked at sewing blogs until I started Male Pattern Boldness, but some of the blogs I enjoy most are written by people who are just starting out because I can relate to their sewing challenges — and their enthusiasm.

9. Make sewing your play and not your work. Life is stressful enough without adding even more stress. Sewing can be challenging, especially when things aren’t working out the way you’d like them to. Remember why you’re sewing in the first place. You didn’t learn to walk in a day or in a week and you’re not going to master sewing in that amount of time. But imagine how much you’ll know a year from now if you just keep plugging along, making mistakes and learning from them. Just keep going and maintain a sense of humor.

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10. Make something you really like. I’ve heard a lot of stories from people who were taught — and turned off — sewing in Home Economics class where they were forced to make something they hated, like an apron or an ugly skirt. As an adult, you make the rules. It’s much more inspiring to sew something you might actually want to wear. You don’t have to pay a lot for the fabric (Pick up some old sheets!). I also think sewing for oneself, especially at the beginning, is more fun than sewing for others. You don’t have to please anyone but yourself and you know best how you want something to look or fit.

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11. Take a class. Don’t take a class. A lot of people ask me if they should take a class. Some people really enjoy the social aspect of a class or the way a class organizes their week or (potentially) keeps them from making costly mistakes. I didn’t take a class though I wouldn’t rule it out for the future. I’d recommend that anybody who wants to take a class take one and anybody who wants to learn on their own do so. It’s not either/or.

I will say that given the tremendous amount of information available in books, DVDs, on YouTube videos, sites like BurdaStyle, and blogs, nobody has to take a class to get the information they need. All those “sewing secrets” have already been revealed!

So wise readers, anything to add? Anything that would be in your top ten that I haven’t included?

How did you learn to sew?

~Peter

When native New Yorker Peter Lappin bought his first sewing machine two years ago to hem a pair of thrift store jeans, little did he know he was initiating a journey that would bring him fame and fortune. While awaiting his fortune he stays busy writing “the world’s most popular men’s sewing blog,” Male Pattern Boldness, and now contributing to BurdaStyle.

“For more than twenty years I’d lived on the edge of the Garment District without even knowing what a seam ripper was. Now I rip daily!”

92 Comments

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    Jul 15, 2011, 02.40 PMby nellyvdb

    Your post is very refreshing and full of wisdom and encouraging words for the beginners like me.

    When I was a child, I saw my grandma create beautiful garments, including ball gowns and costumes, and I even helped her cut the fabric, and sew sequins and seed beads for my ballet costumes. I decided it was time to learn how to sew less than a year ago when I took a beginner’s course, and only fifteen minutes into my first class, my first thought was “I love this, this is what I have been looking for and didn’t even know”. I had found my passion/hobby. I am very visual, and learn better if I see something being done and then try it myself, while I ask questions. I am very social as well, therefore, taking a class was perfect for my personality and learning style.

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Jul 15, 2011, 02.56 PMby Peter Lappin

      That’s great, Nelly! Hey, I didn’t learn to sew till I was well past 40.

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    Jul 15, 2011, 02.00 PMby Melanie Wiens

    Thanks for this article, Peter! So true that we shouldn’t see our mistakes as failures – they are a learning experience! My first and most powerful sewing machine was exactly what you recommend! It is a heavy, old, aqua blue Viking from the local thrift shop. I would add to the list of sewing tips the importance of knowing your machine. A sewist needs to take apart the machine and clean and lube it. I have been frustrated often by having to take my machine in for service until one day my son changed that. He dropped a strong magnet into my machine when he had it tipped upside down. I found out how to remove the cover and the magnet. Then I lubed every moving part I could find and the machine sewed very happily after that – better than it had it years! So simply put, learn to service your own machine!

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Jul 15, 2011, 02.57 PMby Peter Lappin

      That’s fantastic! It IS so important to know how to maintain a machine (if not take it entirely apart).

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    Jul 15, 2011, 01.30 PMby pambox

    definitely agree with the make up your own rules tip. finding the technique that works best for you is so much more important than strictly following every step of a pattern and getting discouraged when you get confused or find it too hard.

    1 Reply
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    Jul 15, 2011, 01.17 PMby A. Nguyen

    I second point #6: find a community, and would add that a physical community can add to virtual ones as learning forums. Search on meetup.com for local sewing groups. Our local sewing groups get together regularly and often. We have a “project review” meet-up once a month where people come to show off/ask questions/ask for opinions/learn. We welcome all levels of experience; the more experienced people always try to help out the lesser experienced ones.

    We also have a “sewing party” once a month where people bring their machine and work on projects, get a helping hand, or just hang out.

    We also have “instructional” meet-ups where somebody would present/demonstrate/share some knowledge or skills. I did a recent one on working with fluid and sheer fabrics.

    Watching someone demonstrate a technique or hearing somebody present a subject beats reading about it!

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Jul 15, 2011, 02.58 PMby Peter Lappin

      That’s great — I wish I were more motivated to make this happen for myself here in NYC. I know there are groups that meet… I think BurdaStyle organizes some too.

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    Jul 15, 2011, 01.09 PMby turtlegirl00

    thanks for the great post! and it is so inspiring that you began two years ago! I just began making clothes this year and feel like such a novice and am so inspired by what some people are accomplishing. I agree that the sewing communities—online or in your town/village/etc—are a HUGE resource! that is the only way I was even brave enough to begin an article of clothing—an online tutorial! :) I am going to check out the book you recommend.

    1 Reply
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    Jul 15, 2011, 11.48 AMby bhghatesyou

    i always love your posts. i learned to sew in high school and like you said i had to make ugly pillows and i hated it. but since coming back on my own i have taught myself almost everything (that i know im still learning!) but i have always wondered if i should take some sort of class. but seeing that you never did and i think all of your stuff is wonderful i feel better not going to one and continuing to learn on my own!

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Jul 15, 2011, 02.59 PMby Peter Lappin

      Thanks. I think if you’re determined you can learn most everything on your own. But it can be helpful to have a real live person once in a while!

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    Jul 15, 2011, 11.32 AMby Kasiorist

    great point, though find no 6 the most difficult to accept! my machine isn’t fancy and I wish I’d bought one with overlocking option but doing just alright without. I don’t have a single book as I haven’t found one contents of which would be useful but still searching and I don’t read instructions till I’m stuck. stubborn nature..

    start small and avoid complexity? I wish I could do that! I feel like learning more when challenged! though it is a good piece of advice for most people

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Jul 15, 2011, 03.00 PMby Peter Lappin

      Challenges are good too!

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    Jul 15, 2011, 11.24 AMby bcmillions

    Awesome advice,Sir! thank you!

    1 Reply
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    Jul 15, 2011, 06.21 AMby shoshana13

    Unfortuately, I gave my mother’s mechanical Pfaff, which had an excellent stitch (as I was told by seamstresses – I did not sew then), as my mother bought an electric Singer 478, of 1969 (do you know these machines), which I try to use. I would prefer now a mechanical machine, with no pedal – or a better one? which?

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Jul 15, 2011, 03.00 PMby Peter Lappin

      A good mechanical machine is usually all you need.

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    Jul 15, 2011, 05.52 AMby Justine of Sew Country Chick

    I love to watch how my eight year old sews together the most interesting outfits without patterns for her Barbie. I always stressed to her the importance of using her Barbie patterns but I think I was taking the fun out of it for her! She just likes to sew but doesn’t like all the other rules. I hope to encourage this in the future and ease her slowly into the “rules”. Sewing is just something that either clicks or doesn’t with people.I for one am hooked! I’ve been sewing for years and my 15 year old still won’t sew even a button! Also my favorite of all my machines is a 1982 Bernina Nova I got at the thrift shop for 25$. I think people think if they have a super fancy machine it will help them sew better but of course it isn’t true.

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Jul 15, 2011, 03.01 PMby Peter Lappin

      I agree, Justine.

      It sounds like your 8 yo has the right idea!

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    Jul 15, 2011, 05.41 AMby gillthecat

    i started with embellishing my babies bibs, then tiny baby clothes and i found these great for learning many techniques, and cos kids clothes are small they dont use much fabric and are finished quickly.. i do agrree books helpful but doing it is best and refer when you need,, i also think but thrift store fabric takes all the pressure off, and is the environmental option,, great article

    1 Reply
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    Jul 15, 2011, 02.57 AMby carab

    When I got back into sewing after many years I picked up a $100 machine to start with and worked with it until I felt I wanted to upgrade to a something fancier (and of course more expensive.) If you are going to splurge and buy a new machine from a big brand (Bernina, Viking, Babylock, etc.) you should check with the local shops that sell them and see if they offer classes to go with the machine. For the price you are paying, even for a lower end model, they often offer free classes to help you get the most out of your machine. And most of the sew & vac shops I know are happy to help with questions and the hysteria of feeling like you’ve broken your machine, when in fact you haven’t. I also agree with looking for videos online. Sometimes when attempting a new technique, even with the best of descriptions, there is no substitute for a visual.

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Jul 15, 2011, 03.02 PMby Peter Lappin

      I learned to thread my first bobbin by watching a YouTube video!

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    Jul 15, 2011, 02.44 AMby elaineren

    “Sew like a child” I love this! I began sewing as a child. I made little purse/bags, I notice they are very popular to sew now. I also made doll clothes— I couldn’t figure out blouses, so my dolls wore skirts and ponchos.

    1 Reply
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    Jul 15, 2011, 12.07 AMby Robin Denning

    I like all of your ideas, especially #8. Having a sewing community definitely boosts my enjoyment.

    1 Reply
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    Jul 15, 2011, 12.03 AMby nic101

    Starting small is one of the best tips. I’ve definitely tried to make a few garments that were beyond my range of expertise and given up on them. It just makes you not want to sew. Another tip – check out sewing videos (craft sites, you tube, etc.). It really helps me when I see someone else do it first and explain the steps.

    1 Reply
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    Jul 14, 2011, 11.13 PMby cuada

    I am mostly self taught , but agree that classes can have a lovely social aspect, especially when people are encouraging and helping each other along. My favourite way to learn is by taking things apart – I once worked in a bridal shop , and learned a huge amount about the construction of ball gowns, from having to take them apart for alterations.

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Jul 15, 2011, 03.04 PMby Peter Lappin

      That’s a great opportunity. I also try to take things apart when I can to see how they’re constructed.

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    Jul 14, 2011, 10.55 PMby sharonjc

    All of the above! I learned to sew from my mother, who made all our clothes – and they were exquisite, with lace detailing, smocking, hand pleating, etc. My first machine was a portable Singer which I bought with some of my first earnings. I chose it because it was bright yellow and was decorated with daisies. It still works!!!! For my 50th birthday gift (one of them) to myself, I bought a fancy machine and I love it. Over the years I have taken lessons – pattern drafting, tailoring, working with different fabrics, but my most valuable lessons are those learned from my own mistakes. As one of my teachers said, “There’s no such thing as failure – just a new creation”.

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Jul 15, 2011, 03.04 PMby Peter Lappin

      I think I used to own that flower-covered Singer — it was called the “Genie.” I ended up selling it but it was a sturdy little machine.

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